The Tea Party movement is full of people who don’t like the fiscal policies of both Democrats and Republicans, reject deficit spending (today rather than during Bush), revere the Constitution, love their country, fear for their future, and resent what they believe are freeloaders who receive government handouts (both Wall Street types and minorities like African Americans and Latinos). I agree with many of these complaints. There is often little that separates the two political parties when it comes to supporting capitalism, for instance. On other matters, I just don’t agree. It is the sum total of their political values and vision, however, that I find truly offensive, mistaken, and foolish.
It is becoming clear that the Tea Parties, for all of their diversity and seemingly lack of coordination, do have an underlying ideology. They are opposed to what some commentators have christened “the culture of dependence.” The poor and the educated classes that support Obama, according to the Tea Party faithful, are those who are either dependent on government assistance or in a position to administer that assistance to the poor. The poor and minorities are presumably mostly in the first category. This cynical and materialistic view of political opponents provides all the justification the Tea Parties need to demand an end to unemployment benefits, a rejection of federal assistance to states, a repeal of the health insurance reform bill, and more. They aren’t particularly wrong about the idea that the founding fathers mostly sought to institute a government based on “negative liberty.” The founders political philosophy was forged around John Locke’s idea that rights are given by God and are, thus, inalienable. Much of this recent intellectual enlightenment, however, can be attributed to orchestrations of TV performer Glenn Beck and other advocates on the right who have offered a spirited and polemical articulation of this connection.
Lately, for instance, the Tea Parties have begun to call for a “restoration” of “honor” and for a return to values of the past. This turn to a more positive politics (as opposed to the mostly obstructionist and isolationist Tea Party delusions of the very recent past based on accusations that Obama is a secret Muslim or not a citizen) represents a complex sore that serves as motivation for their discontnent. The Tea Parties have both a deep resentment of the excessive benefits they believe minorities and the poor receive from the federal government and a passionate interest in reclaiming a personal independence they believe existed in the past and that had been outlined for them by the founders in the Constitution. At the risk of accomplishing absolutely nothing in debating the TP’s mostly emotional position (a passionate brew, btw, that the founding fathers saw as a threat to democracy and that they tried to restrain in the system of checks and balances in the Constitution), let me try to explain the folly in the Tea Party faithful’s empty ideological re-positioning.
Where Tea Party members once truly independent? Are they now? Who is truly independent in this country? Are white, middle class men in the U.S. facing severe obstructions in what they desire today compared to the past? Were those obstructions to their individual liberty primarily caused by government? Has government generally helped them achieve what they need and desire? By most accounts, the answer is surely that no group or institution in this country can do much without the participation and assistance of government – even the billionaires who finance the Tea Party movement. Of all the groups that comprise this great country, white middle class men have benefitted considerably more than the poor and minorities from government programs and policies. Yes, it is true that wages and wealth have not increased as much as they have for those at the very top in the last 30 years. But for that we have to thank Republicans for the rising inequality that has resulted from cutting taxes on the rich and by transferring so much more wealth to the top 1 %. Capitalist logic is also responsible as the push for profit led corporations to cast off jobs and make those that remained more tenuous by increasing automation in production and by relocating industrial jobs to cheap wage locations around the world like China.
Tea Party membership is mostly located in the red states, in the places that have gained the most from government assistance. Let me give a few examples.
Most research shows that Tea Party members are male, older than 45, in the middle income range (between $50 and $100, 000 a year), white, and living in the southern and western parts of the U.S. The chart below reveals that it is precisely the southern and western parts of the country that receive more federal dollars than they contribute in taxes to the federal government – a dollar and eight cents more than they contribute in taxes to be exact.
Northeast 0.89, Midwest 0.91
Northeast and Midwest 0.90
South 1.19, West 0.95
South and West 1.08
U.S. Total 1.00
Most of that extra federal spending in the southern and western states is not due to direct payments to retired persons or to revenue sharing with states. A great deal of that spending represents contracts, mostly for defense, as well as for other purposes. Figure 1 shows this.
Some Tea Party members might argue that they would like to end extravagant federal spending, even for defense and for agribusiness. Even if that were possible, and I have great doubts, it would not change how much Tea Party members have already gained in the past from the unequal contribution of federal programs to them in the form of mortgage tax subsidies, the GI Bill, legal and political rights, better quality education, and lower mortgage lending rates. Figure 2 shows the disparity in wealth that exists in this country between white, black, and Latino households.
Thus, though wages have been stagnant in this country for everyone except the super rich since 1980, wealth continues to grow for white households. As a result, one study claims “A long-standing cleft in our society is becoming more obvious: the racial wealth gap. For every dollar owned by the median white family in the United States, the typical Latino family has twelve cents, and the typical African American family has a dime.”
Tea Party members want to restore an honor and freedom that is hard to prove they have ever lost. Not only have they not faced many obstacles in their lives that have kept them from making decisions to advance themselves, they have actually benefitted from government largess and policies. Tea Party members today decry the expansion of government and reject stimulus money and health care reform. They argue that Tea Party “Americans today prefer independence to dependence on government, just as they did 200 years ago.” The problem is that they were never as independent as they assume themselves to be. They did not pull themselves up from their own bootstraps. They got considerable help from the federal government. What they face today is a continued dependence on a government that can no longer guarantee them either increasing wages or assets, especially in residential property. They may also be dimly aware that the demographic tint of both the population and voters in this country is skewing towards black and brown. Perhaps, it is that reality more than any economic one that really scares the Tea Party? Imagine being dependent on a government that cannot guarantee special economic or political privileges to white, middle class men! What all of this looks to them is not that they are becoming equal in wages, occupation and class status to the poor and minority groups in this country. Rather than providing equality of treatment to all groups, they seem to think that Obama, as some have said at Tea Party rallies, is trying to push them into white slavery!